“The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.”
― Stephen King,
I did say this was going to take a long time to talk about, develop and create. Besides the fact that I work full time, it also takes a little dedication, a little energy to write and create when I get the chance. I’ve always been one to get easily distracted, if I were to be honest … and I am. But I did go into this project with a sense of realism in mind, knowing it would be a long term project and certainly not something that will be made in a few weeks.
With that mind, let’s finally get into the next part of the plan.
When it comes to storytelling, something I believe I’m good at, if you keep your character development and world building at a minimum, you’re probably going to fail at creating a compelling RPG. The best role playing worlds rely on character development, relationships that pull you in and make you feel something for the world around you, and a world that’s brimming with detail and life.
There’s obvious RPG’s to compare to, modern marvels like Dragon Age, Baldur’s Gate, anything D&D related … but that’s not exactly what I’m going with here. There’s an obvious reason why, of course. You guys did vote on the 1980’s as the setting after all! Yup, that’s right. This RPG will be 80’s inspired, which is both surprising and encouraging. You also voted for an imaginative title, something a little creative. For that, I thank you, because as much as realistic would have been kinda interesting, imagination is another strong point of mine.
To be honest, I threw in the 80’s at the last second. It was more a joke than a serious suggestion, a spanner in the works to see what would happen. I’m surprised it won the reader vote, and yet I’m not, because how often do you play an RPG that’s set in that era? Not often, I can tell you that. It’s certainly not what you’d call a ‘traditional’ setting either, given that fantasy or futuristic first come to mind when considering a role playing setting.
So we have our setting, and to refresh your memory, here’s our current goals:
GOAL #1: SETTLE ON AN IDEA
GOAL #2: CREATE A DESIGN DOCUMENT
GOAL #3: CHOOSE A CREATION TOOL
As of now, I can safely cross my first goal off the list … wait, hold on…
GOAL #1: SETTLE ON AN IDEA
Our official idea is an RPG set in the 1980’s. But of course, that’s just the absolute basics, like someone saying ‘I’m going to make a sponge cake’ without considering the icing, how many layers, whether there are sprinkles on the top, and so on and so forth. The good news is, that’s what Goal #2 is all about. Design documents are a production team’s best friend, long before anyone types a piece of code.
In his article titled ‘A Practical Guide to Game Writing‘, veteran games writer Darby McDevitt (who’s put pen to paper on a number of Assassin’s Creed games among others) lists the most critical early tasks for any writer or production team. By following these simple steps, you’re more than likely going to narrow your countless ideas down to something more goal worthy.
Now I should note, McDevitt wrote this article specifically with production teams working with writers, not solo artists such as yours truly. However, the ideas here are still very much appropriate and worth following. I should also say this first part doesn’t work for everyone. We’re all different after all. It comes down to the type of game you’re going to make and how much story/character development may be incorporated.
As McDevitt suggests, even games with very little dialogue are still, in some way, written…
“…in the sense that they have a clear set of emotional shifts, tonal changes, and meaningful moment-to-moment events that compound into emotional pay-offs.”
So, if you’re making a Tetris-ish puzzle game or a Flappy Bird clone, whatever writing you do need will be more design and puzzle creation … well … unless Flappy Bird becomes some kind of romantic comedy or tragic Shakespearean drama. To flap or not to flap, that is the question.
Even before the storytelling drafts begin, there’s plenty to put down. McDevitt lists a number of steps to take during this early conception stage, such as detailed narrative summaries and story outlines, character dossiers (including NPC’s as well as your main cast), a story plan (i.e. how will the story be told, what kind of interaction between the player and the world, etc.) and if you decide to use them, a cut-scene breakdown. On top of that, you’ll need to consider dialogue trees, how much will be spoken/written on screen if at all (see Hyper Light Drifters or Limbo as perfect examples of games that tell compelling stories without the need of text).
Considering I’m taking this into the RPG fold, there’s going to be a lot storytelling, but that’s a given. The question remains how I will present it to the player, but I have plenty of inspiration. From Final Fantasy to Pokemon, there are plenty of titles to compare to, but what I’m thinking is something a little more personal.
Telling a story is one thing, but influencing the story is another, so I’m going to create one that’s defined and altered to suit the player. That means taking inspiration from another source, one that has been mighty popular of light. That would be Telltale Games.
In many of their story driven worlds, based on the likes of The Walking Dead, Minecraft and Game of Thrones, the story plays out the way the you want it. Whether it’s a particular piece of dialogue or a point where a decision is made, it later splinters the story into various paths that can alter what you see on the screen. Now I’m not suggesting my story will be as deep or branching, but it’s something I’ll consider at least from a storytelling perspective.
What I can say is this; the story will be emotional, it will be in some way realistic despite its setting, and it will hit a few notes that are personal to me. I’ve seen and felt varying levels of emotions in my time and will no doubt see plenty more, so incorporating my own thoughts and memories will provide a more relatable narrative for the player to latch onto. And yes, there will be a few twists as well, as is a Telltale tradition.
The other thing I’ll likely be working with is a turn-based combat system, something that allows a little thought by the player instead of hacking and slashing, and also makes it a little easier for me to create and build a combat system that works. It’s still way too early in planning on that front so let’s move on from that for now, just with the knowledge that it will be involved at some point.
So, with that out of the way, let’s briefly talk about my story. More to the point, let’s write down that quick summary of what’s to come before building this design document. Ready? Here goes:
It’s 1988. Welcome to the world of Ivanthra, an alternate Earth where things never seem to change, where time itself has seemingly come to a halt.
No-one seems to know why nor care. They go about their everyday lives in pure ignorance. No hours, no minutes, no seconds.
You awake atop a green field, alone and confused but not afraid. A voice calls out to you, unknown yet somehow familiar…
“They come,” it says, “The Darkness is at hand. But so are you, champion. You have heard our calls, answered our plea. Defend us, champion, and time will begin to heal.”
There it is, folks, your first indication of what’s to come. You’ll notice a couple of things here that I’ll explain in more detail later on down the track, including the use (or lack thereof) of time itself. That will pay key part in the storytelling mechanism and in some ways the gameplay itself.
You’ll also notice I’ve given the world a name, Invanthra. I wanted something strong, something striking, a name that could just as easily be considered the home of a villain just as much as a hero. Kinda rolls off the tongue as well, don’t you think?
Now I realise there isn’t much to go on there … but I do have something else to show you. Just, not quite yet. Because as much as I want to put together this design document, that also means putting a little pencil to paper as well as the pen itself. So, yes, I’ll be attempt to draw up some examples, some ideas, of character and world design as I go. That’s a decision I didn’t come to lightly, considering I’m not the best drawer in the first place, but I realise that if I’m going to do this right I’m going to have to try everything at least once.
So, what do you think? Do you have any questions? Is there something within your own design document you’re having trouble with? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter and I’ll do my best to respond and help out where I can as I continue this little project through to the end.
And so, onto the next part: GOAL #2: CREATE A DESIGN DOCUMENT …
Mark Isaacson is a freelance journalist and editor of PN2. Go say hi @markdisaacson